If good subject lines came naturally to us, we’d all write them, e-mail would be more effective, and the world would be a better place.
Instead, we write “Hello” or “Checking in.” Never mind that a lazy subject line makes it harder for the recipient to respond. (And never mind that we’ll probably be the recipient of that same e-mail eventually.) Fortunately, writing good subject lines is a skill that can be learned, and the world can still be a better place.
Tell what the e-mail message is about. This sounds obvious, but it requires knowing what the e-mail is about and why you’re sending it. Remember all those topic sentences you wrote in school? Good subject lines are a lot like those.
Be specific—boring, even. Clarity trumps cleverness every time. If you work on a project team, set up a protocol that the team can follow. The protocol might be the team name followed by request, notification, or status update. Include the date when pertinent, e.g., Branding Refresh: Meeting Minutes 4/30/09. Good subject lines make it easy for the reader to file and retrieve the information.
Be concise. Remember many people now read e-mail on their Blackberries. If possible, include all the information in the subject line: Branding Refresh: Meeting changed to 5/15 at 3:00 EOM (end of message). Yes, it takes more time to be brief—as Cicero noted, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”
Choose the best words in the best order. Good subject lines help the reader skimming through her inbox. This is particularly important when networking. “John Farrell recommended I contact you” is more likely to get a response than an e-mail with that critical information in the body of the message.
Improve on others’ subject lines. It’s allowed! When your receive an e-mail titled “Here you go” containing feedback on a draft of a presentation about Widget #303, change the subject line to something meaningful before forwarding the e-mail to others. Every time you do, it brings us a step closer to that better world.
By Christine MacLean